Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue?

The Sutherland Springs church shooting. Sexual assault allegations pouring out of Hollywood. Russian interference in U.S. elections. Accusations leveled at Alabama Senator Roy Moore.

Coming on the heels of an abnormally intense hurricane season, an earthquake in Mexico, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas, there’s an undercurrent of “compassion fatigue” overtaking many Americans.

“There’s actually a term for how you and so many other people are feeling right now. It’s called compassion fatigue. No one can absorb the horrible things happening in this world 24 hours a day. You have to find a way to step back,” says Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and expert on the connection between our media consumption habits and stress.

It’s a matter of over-exposure. The world is not necessarily a worse place than it was 10, 50, or even 100 years ago, it’s our 24/7 access to news and information that is overwhelming us.

A cartoon by David Cipress posted on his Twitter account perfectly sums up the way many of us have begun to feel. A man and a woman are walking down the street and the woman comments, “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

To mitigate the constant barrage of “bad” news, it’s important to be intentional with our self-care. The obvious answer is to simply disconnect but that’s often neither reasonable nor rational. Uninformed can be worse than ill-informed. Instead, family therapist Roy Dowdy recommends the following tools and behavior changes to prevent or alleviate your compassion fatigue.

  • Be intentional. Don’t start your day by picking up your phone and scrolling through social media or news apps. At night, turn off your devices at least an hour before bed.
  • Consider turning off notifications and alerts. Instead of having the “bad news” come to you, disable notifications and alerts and set aside a time to check in. Additionally, limit the time you spend reading the news. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole, so decide beforehand how much time you will spend reading or watching the news.
  • Be self-aware. Be in tune with yourself and recognize when you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed or unhappy. Take stock of your situation and be intentional about changing your attitude.
  • Use positive coping strategies like prayer, meditation, exercise, a hot bath, drinks with friends, or whatever else fills your emotional gas tank.
  • Go for a walk. Simply changing your immediate environment – hiking in the woods, walking around the block, or walking around the parking lot during lunch – can pull you out of a negative mindset.
  • Keep a journal where you can freely express yourself. Often, putting pen to paper and writing out what is bothering you can lift at least part of the weight. Keeping your feelings suppressed will only delay compassion fatigue, not avoid it.
  • Follow the same self-care tips your doctor recommends for wellness: exercise and eat a healthy diet. A healthy body supports a healthy mind.
  • Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and no longer in control of your emotions, consider seeing a counselor or therapist. You go to the doctor when something is wrong with your physical health and your mental health should be no different. Talk to someone who can give you the tools to not only cope but thrive.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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